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Nota Bene’s David Lee uses squid ink in a pasta dish.Signe Langford/The Globe and Mail

Ink is a squid or other cephalopod's first line of defence, a dark ooze that squirts from the creature's ink gland, allowing it to escape predation in a swirling, smoky cloud.

Squid, octopuses, cuttlefish and a few other sea animals are also armed, but it's the ink of the cuttlefish (though referred to as squid ink in culinary circles) that's an essential – if mysterious – ingredient in a handful of classic Italian, Spanish, Philippine and Japanese dishes.

Similar in appearance, and closely related, cuttlefish and squid both produce ink, and both inks can be used in cooking, though cuttlefish ink is preferred, and that's most often what you'll find in jars, even the ones labelled "squid ink." Cooks favour cuttlefish ink for its more mellow flavour and brownish-black hue.

Cephalopod ink is composed of a number of chemicals, primarily melanin, mucous and glutamate (umami), with a soupçon of the neurotransmitter dopamine. And though we're not sure the presence of dopamine allows us to proclaim it as a "good-mood food," the ink turns up in all sorts of comforting dishes: pasta, risotto, soup, sauces, even (black) ice cream.

In Toronto at Nota Bene, executive chef David Lee adds it to a simple housemade squid-ink tagliolini (pasta) with butter-poached B.C. wild shrimp, basil, garlic and crushed heirloom tomatoes. Lee describes the flavour of the ink as "mildly salty liquid squid." But it is intense, so only a drop or two is needed. At Toronto's Hudson Kitchen, chef Robbie Hojilla's squid à la plancha with Jerusalem artichoke is drizzled with a rich, jet-black, squid-ink sauce. "This dish is inspired by adobo," explains Hojilla, "which is the national dish of the Philippines. … In my sauce there is squid ink, tamari, coconut milk, cane vinegar, shallot, ginger, garlic, bay leaf and pepper. The squid ink adds complexity and extra savouriness or umami due to the naturally occurring MSG or glutamate protein."

Ready to experiment at home? Squid ink is available in gourmet shops and fish markets. As with any unfamiliar ingredient, taste a drop before adding it to recipes, to gain an understanding of what it will add and how much to use. Start with traditional dishes that call for squid ink – then have fun experimenting. Nortindal Cuttlefish Ink, 90 g/$7.07 from qualifirst.com.